Saudi Arabia Tour Guide: The Hejaz Railway
Saudi Arabia Tour Guide: The Hejaz Railway Last updated on Sunday 25th April 2010
The Hejaz Railway was originally built to transport pilgrims from Damascus to Madinah. The idea was first conceived in 1864, during a time of great expansion in railway engineering, but it was not until 40 years later that the initial idea came to fruition.
The only method of transport for the pilgrims to Madinah in those bygone days was camel caravan, a journey which would have been arduous for even the most intrepid traveller. The journey would have taken about two months, and a further two months on the return, travelling through winter's freezing temperatures and torrential rains, or the scorching heat of the summer months. Towns and settlements were sparse and hostile tribes, together with an inhospitable environment, no doubt compounded the difficulties.
The concept of the railway presented a financial as well as an engineering challenge, requiring a budget of some £8 million pounds. Contributions from the Turkish sultan Abdul Hammed, the Khedive of Egypt, and the Shah of Iran helped to raise the money. Other contributions came from the Turkish Civil Service and armed forces, and from various fund-raising efforts (which included the sale of titles such as Pasha or Bey).
Construction, maintenance and guarding of the line all presented enormous difficulties, mainly undertaken by 5,000 Turkish soldiers. Apart from the unpredictable -- and often hostile -- local tribesmen, variations in the terrain itself made construction difficult. The ground was very soft and sandy in places and solidly rocky in others. Water scarcity was the norm, but occasional torrential rainstorms caused flash floods, washing away bridges and banks and causing the line to collapse.
The camel caravan owners were far from pleased by the construction of the railway line, as it posed a considerable threat to their livelihood. The railway journey was quicker and cheaper, and no-one in his right mind would contemplate spending £40 on an arduous, two-month camel journey when he could travel in comfort in only four days for just £3.50. Frequent attacks on the trains by the tribes and furious caravan operators, made the journey to Madinah a perilous undertaking for pilgrims, whether by camel or by rail.
On 1 September 1908 the railway was officially opened, and was transporting 30,000 pilgrims a year by 1912. Business boomed, and by 1914 the annual load had soared to 300,000 passengers. Not only were pilgrims transported to Madinah, but the Turkish army began to use the railway as its chief mode of transport for troops and supplies. This was to be the railway's undoing, as it was severely damaged during the First World War (1914-1918). There was no direct intention to destroy the railway at this time; the main aim was simply to cripple it, in order to impede the advance of the Turkish army.
After the First World War, and until as recently as 1971, several attempts were made to revive the railway, but the scheme proved too difficult and too expensive. Road transport was now established and, by the Seventies, aviation had made rapid progress. The railway was rapidly superseded and the huge old steam locomotives clanked sadly to their final halt. But the romance of the railway remains alive.
Enthusiastic followers of the phantom steam trail of the Hejaz Railway will find it worthwhile to go as far north as Tabuk, about 1,100km from Jeddah. In the grey, rocky hills outside Tabuk, one comes upon the station at Al Awjariyah, which is built from natural grey stone. It is two-storied and built like a fortress, in common with most of the other stations along the line, leading one to suppose that the life of a station-master in those days was not for the faint-hearted.
Following the track along Wadi Saba for about 13km leads to another station, and the track seems here to double back on itself. The track then continues through a deep gorge cut into the hills and thence into a tunnel. The steel tracks have been removed long ago, and local farms now use the iron sleepers as building supports and fence posts.
The eighth station -- Ad Dar Al Hamra -- is situated at the end of a wide, flooded section of the wadi. The stations are at approximately 20km intervals and behind this particular one the ruins of a Turkish fort are worth exploring. Interesting too, is the station at Al Mutalla, which has several overturned carriages lying beside it.
At Medain Saleh, the station is fascinating, with an enormous old engine house, containing several rusting old steam locomotives.
Al Sawrah, about 116km south of Al Ula, is one of the most scenic stations to be found along the route. Situated in a wide, beautiful wadi, the three station buildings are constructed of an attractive yellow stone. Just outside the station one can see the shells of a couple of old pick-up trucks, probably the remains of an attempt to rehabilitate the railway line.
The first mining of the Hejaz Railway was at Aba el Naam, but there are more interesting relics to be found further north, some 34km down the line from Al Sawrah. Here, twisted pieces of iron rails lie in the sand beside the engine, which still remains upright, despite being some distance from the track itself. Explosives have ripped open sections of metal at the back of the engine and wrecked bogies, blown apart from their carriages, lie nearby. Nothing seems to have changed since 1917.
The round trip from Jeddah encompasses about 3,000km and is an outstanding journey, as both a visual and a historical experience.